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Muslms-Sicily-art - 6/26/13


"Muslims in Sicily" by Lady Adelisa di Salerno. (Previously known as Lady Gianotta dalla Fiora).


NOTE: See also the files: Sicily-msg, fd-Sicily-msg, Nrmn-Scly-Fst-art, Islam-msg, p-Italy-food-bib, ME-revel-fds-art, za-atar-msg, Cypriot-Sugr-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Muslims in Sicily

by Lady Adelisa Salernitana

(Previously known as Lady Gianotta dalla Fiora)


The island of Sicily produced one of the most unique cultures of the Middle Ages, which still persists today in the language, architecture, and food. Home to Greeks, Romans, Lombards, Normans, Muslims, Spanish, and French, all of these influences melded under the Sicilian sun to create something much larger than the constituent parts. As Sicily today merges more into the Italian mainstream, the unique cultural markers are getting blurred, but even today's Sicilians acknowledge that they are Sicilians first and foremost.


One of the strongest elements of the Sicilian culture remains its Muslim past. In Palermo, many streets in the old Kalsa district by the waterfront (from the Arabic al-Khalesa) put one in mind of Cairo or Morocco, especially in the souk-like markets or the street vendors around the Teatro Massimo from Northern Africa selling textiles, furniture, hookahs, and jewelry. You'll find couscous, "cucusa" in Sicilian dialect, on the menu in Trapani, only made with fish instead of lamb. Sicilian dialect itself has many words of Arabic origin, including the name of the island's capital, Palermo — from the Arabic Bal'Harm. The Arabs introduced irrigation techniques and the cultivation of many crops that indelibly changed the island's cuisine — eggplants, rice, oranges, lemons, date palms, mulberries, and sugar. Marzipan and dried semolina pasta, according to several food scholars, had their origins in the kitchens of the Arab emirs. Today's caponata, with its sweet and sour flavors, came out of Arabic cooking (a version of eggplant salad from the island of Ustica, off the coast of Palermo, may be considered a proto-caponata). Sicilian cuisine today emphasizes one-dish, stuffed meals, sweet and sour flavors, and a use of spices not found in mainland Italian cuisine.


The Muslims came to Sicily in the 9th century as part of the expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East. At that point in time, the Byzantines had held the island, but in 827, Euphemius, an admiral and the governor of the island, offered the rulership of the island to Ziyadat Allah, the Aghlabid emir of al Qayrawan in Tunisia. Euphemius did this because he was on the outs with the Byzantine emperor and had been dismissed as governor, but was soon to regret his bargain after more than 10, 000 troops from North Africa landed at Mazara. Euphemius was killed in battle and the Muslim conquest of the island went into full swing. The going was not easy, however, as it took 75 years for the Arabs to conquer the island. The island was divided into three administrative districts, still known today: Val de Mazara (encompassing Palermo and the western end of the island), Val de Noto (the central region, including Siracusa), and Val de Demone, the eastern end of the island and the last to be conquered. "Val" is derived from the Arabic world for province. Once conquered, the island remained fairly tranquil, according to most scholars. Taxes under Byzantine rule had been extremely high, the required military conscription resented, and economic development stunted. On the less-positive side, although the Arab emirs allowed Christians, who were of the Greek rite, and Jews to continue to worship as they pleased, non-Muslims did have to pay a special tax, the jizya, and no new churches, monasteries, or temples could be established. The cathedral in Palermo was taken over as a mosque and even after its conversion back to a cathedral after the Norman conquest, architectural elements and Kufic carvings of the Koran on the exterior survived (see Figures 1 and 2).


The first dynasty to rule the island was the Aghlabid from Tunisia. From 909, the Fatimid dynasty was ruling, entrusting their power to the Kalbids in 948. In that year, Hassan al-Kalbi became the first emir to rule the entire island, although the major cities — Enna, Trapani, Siracusa and Catania, and Taormina — had their local rulers and were self-described "emirates." Palermo, or Bal'Harm, became the island's capital, with the population of that city growing to about 200, 000 residents by 1050, by some estimates. Under the Arabs, trade, art, and agriculture thrived. Some of the qanats, or irrigation channels, dug by the Arabs still flow under Palermo.


An Arab visitor to Palermo in 972, Mohammed ibn Hawqal, commented on the number of mosques in the city, more than 300. Yet one scholar, William Granara, has pointed out that despite his admiration of the beauties of Sicily, ibn Hawqal feels very much a stranger on the island. Ibn Hawqal, although a Muslim, did not think much of his co-religionists; he attacked the Palermo Sicilians as Muslims in their insistence on private ownership of mosques, and personally as well, calling them dimwitted. He attributes this in part to the amount of onions consumed in their diet: ... "And in truth this food, of which they are fond and which they eat raw, ruins their senses. There is not one man among them, of whatsoever condition, who does not eat onions every day, and does not serve them morning and evening in his house. It is this that has clouded their imagination; offended their brains; perturbed their senses; altered their intelligence; drowsed their spirits; fogged their expressions, untempered their constitutions so completely that it rarely happens they see things straight."


In 969, a Fatimid general, Jawhar as-Siquilli ("the Sicilian"), founded the Fatimid city of Cairo. Not a lot is known about him. He was born a Greek Orthodox Christian and was sold into slavery while young, converting to Islam sometime during this early period of his life. He was taken under the tutelage of the Tunisian emir Ismail al-Mansur, and Ismail's son and heir, al-Muizz, freed Jawhar and made him his scribe. He grew to the rank of military advisor and then visir. After founding Cairo, he administered Egypt until 972 on behalf of the Fatimids. He died in 992, after falling out of favor with al-Muizz, back into favor with al-Muizz's successor, al-Aziz, and back out of favor after a military defeat by the Syrians in 979, which was part of an unsuccessful effort to get Syria and Palestine under Fatimid control.


The battles al-Siquilli fought in were emblematic of relations throughout the Muslims world. Although of one religion, by the 11th century, the Sunni and Shia sects were locked in battle all over the Middle East and Mediterranean. The Europeans took note of these divisions, and various attacks were launched in Italy and Spain. In 1040, George Maniakes, the Byzatine general, led an army of Byzatines, Lombards, and Normans in an attack on Sicily. Although this army initially took Messina, it ultimately failed because of Maniakes. He was a great general, but was difficult to get along with and was recalled by the Byzantine emperor to face charges of treason. Once Maniakes was recalled, the motley army disbanded. Even as the Christian attack faded away, though, the Kalbid emir of Palermo was in open warfare with the Zirid of Tunisia, and it was only a matter of time before a more determined group of Europeans attacked the island.


The Normans had started to arrive in Southern Italy toward the end of the 10th century. Landless younger sons of nobles, they were out to make their fortune, and hired on as mercenaries to the Lombard rulers in the region fighting the Byzantines. The Lombards showered the Norman warriors with gifts. As John Julius Norwich notes in his two-book volume The Normans in Sicily, Prince Gaimar of Salerno sent home a group of these mercenaries accompanies by envoys laden with gifts: "lemons, almonds, pickled nuts, fine vestments and iron instruments chased with gold; and thus they tempted them to come to this land that flows with milk and honey and so many beautiful things."


Norman power consolidated under Robert Guiscard d'Hauteville, who arrived in Italy following his older half-brothers in 1046, serving under the prince of Capua. He raised his own army and consolidated power in Calabria, eventually taking over Apulia when his half-brothers died. In 1059, he entered a treaty with Pope Nicholas II to expel the Arabs from Sicily.


Robert Guiscard worked with his younger half-brother Roger D'Hauteville in planning the expedition to the island. In 1061, the Hauteville brothers were able to exploit the fall of the Kalbite emirate in Palermo and the rivalry between the emir of Siracusa and Catania, ibn-Al Thamna (also called ibn Al-Thumna or ibn al-Itmnah), and the emir of Enna and Trapani, ibn-Al Hawwas. According to some Arab accounts, al-Thamna invited the brothers to intercede in the rivalry, actually setting up meetings with Roger, and the Hautevilles were thus able to land their troops near Messina. The number of troops the Hautevilles had was small, less than 500 at times. Because of the small number of their force, and uprisings in Apulia that pulled Robert away to deal with the troubles, it took about 10 years to capture the island, with Palermo falling in 1071. The last Muslim stronghold fell in 1090.


Some Muslims fled the island as refugees to North Africa, but many stayed. The Muslims on the island were a mix of Arab, Berber, and converts. Under Muslim rule, non-Muslims had to pay special taxes, the jizya, the poll tax, and the kharaj, or land tax. Under Norman rule, however, it was the Muslims turn to pay these types of special taxes. Still, the Normans valued the culture that they found on the island. Administratively, the island was run along Fatimid lines. Roger, who became Count Roger, and his descendants, King Roger II, King WiIlliam I, and King William II, built Arab-style palaces, kept Arab-style courts, kept the tiraz, or royal silk factory, going in Palermo, and even kept harems. They spoke and wrote Arabic, and entertained and supported Muslim scholars. William I was even thought of as a "secret" Muslim by his Muslim subjects. Roger II's grandson, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, was the last of these Christian "Arab" princes who ruled over a kingdom of Christians (both Latinized and Greek), Muslims, and Jews.


How Arabized was the culture of these kings? The coronation mantle of King Roger II, now in Vienna, shows Christian texts in kufic writing embroidered along the border, embroidered camels and precious metalwork reminiscent of the Fatimids. Perhaps the most splendid still-surviving example of the mix of cultures is the Capella Palatina in Palermo. Built by King Roger II, the chapel features glitttering Byzantine mosaics, and a spectacular muqarna — a stalagtite-style ceiling built by Fatimid artisans of cedar wood imported from Lebanon and painted on every surface with early scenes of people in gardens hunting, gaming, eating, drinking, and dancing. The crowned king, according to William Tronzo, in The Cultures of His Kingdom: King Roger and the Capella Palatina, is supposed to be Roger himself, because this figure appears no less than seven times on the muqarna. Mr. Tronzo believes that the positioning of the muqarna over the nave designates that space not as part of the chapel, per se, but as part of the palace's secular ceremonial space, and gives Muslim subjects the message that Sicily is a paradise on earth:


"The eastern portion of the chapel, the sanctuary, was imagined as a Byzantine-style church, replete with dome and mosaics, and including an image of the Pantokrator and scenes from the life of Christ. The nave, on the other hand, was imagined as an Islamic-style reception hall, with tapestry-lined walls, a colonnade carried on high, stilted arches, and a bold muqarnas vault. Both parts too had a place for the king: in the sanctuary, the king stood on a balcony to the north to watch the liturgy on the altar below; in the nave, he occupied a low platform to the west, like an Islamic ruler's low, wide throne, to receive and to greet, and in turn be greeted by, the members of his court. These two places, in the king's own chapel, defined the role of the king and their relationship to one another."


Mr. Tronzo goes on to say in that these two presentations — in Byzantine garb when shown in Byzantine mosaics with Christ the Pantokrator, and in his own Arab garb when he confronted his people, the garb of Sicily, an Arabic-speaking kingdom with a culture that belonged to the world of Islam — these two roles constituted Roger's image of his place in the heavenly and earthly realms.


Scholars say under the reign of Roger II, William I, and William II, a court position depended upon Christian baptism, but there was a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy in place for Muslim officials; they could continue to worship as Muslims if they kept it secret. Jeremy Johns, in his book Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwan, identifies the Muslim men who headed the diwan (which functioned as the executive branch of the government, issuing documents in Arabic, Greek, and Latin, and organized along Fatimid lines). Mr. Johns even says that as trusted as some of these men were, as administrators, they also served as convenient scapegoats as well. All together, toleration for Muslims slowly eroded as Sicily became more Latinized and more of the royal desmesne fell under rule of the Roman Church, and Norman and Lombard lords. Although William I (ruled 1154-1166) and William II (ruled 1166-1189) — weaker kings who could not stand against the barons as Roger could when the crown held most of the island as a royal desmesne — protected their Muslim subjects as best they could, there was a riot in 1161 in which Muslim palace officials were killed. After William II's death in 1189, there were wholesale riots and slaughters of Muslims.


Roger II's half-German grandson, the Hohenstaufen Frederick II, also made efforts to protect his Muslim subjects, keeping Muslim soldiers as bodyguards and Muslims as court officials, but was ultimately pressured by the papacy, the desires of his Christian subjects, and revolts among the Muslims themselves, to remove all the unconverted Muslims from the island and settle them at Lucera, in Apulia (Puglia) on the Italian mainland, with the last deportation taking place in the late 1240s.


The deportation of the Muslims by Frederick II is of curious personal interest to me, as one of the holdout Muslim mountain towns he emptied out was Corleone in 1237, birthplace and home of my grandmother. Mistakenly, I had thought the name of the town Norman; it is actually derived from the Arabic, Qurlayun. Frederick imported Lombards to resettle the town, led by Ottone di Camerana. This is why Italians have told me repeatedly that my grandmother's family name, Quaglino, is Lombard. If there is Arab blood in my veins, it would only be an infinitesimal amount. Corleone now is known for its Mafia past than Muslim past, but for those patient enough to dig, a richer history of the town, and in turn Sicily, can be found.


By 1300, 50 years after Frederick II's death, the Muslim colony at Lucera was totally dismantled, its inhabitants sold into slavery. By 1300 the colony was destroyed, its mosque pulled down, and a church built over the ruins. However, in Sicily itself, the Jews remained an Arabic-speaking minority on the island until their expulsion in 1492, when Sicily had come under Spanish rule. It is they who helped preserve some of the food traditions of the Muslims in later years.



A taste of the past


The rest of this handout comprises modern recipes from today's Sicily with Arab influences, and some period recipes from elsewhere in dar-Al Islam that they might have come from or might be considered equivalent to. Since there are no extant recipes from this period in Sicilian history, we can only make some educated guesses about what the Muslim emirs and Norman kings were fed by their Arab cooks.


Dried semolina pasta was certainly invented in Sicily. The Muslim geographer al-Idrisi, in the 1160s, comments on the manufacture of flat thin noodles on the island, called itriya. The word survives in dialect today in Sicily and Southern Italy as "tria".


Following is one MODERN pasta recipe with a legendary past. Pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines), was allegedly invented when Euphemius and the 10, 000 Arab soldiers landed at Mazara. To feed his hungry soldiers, Euphemius ordered the troops to scrounge around. They found stores of dried pasta in the town, the day's catch of sardines, dried grapes in the vineyards, and wild fennel growing on the hills. The use of raisins and pine nuts are among the flavors Arabic cooking was known for. The dissolved anchovies are reminiscent of the fish murri sauce found in medieval Arab cooking, a sort of Arabic garum. Today, pasta con le sarde is known as the Sicilian national dish.


NOTE: This recipe is almost certainly of a modern invention. There are no period equivalents, as far as I can determine. Please do not serve this dish at feast as "period" food, or if you do serve pasta con le sarde, document that is probably not period but contain flavors reminiscent of the past.


Pasta con le sarde

(from Mary Taylor Simeti's Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food)



1 1/2 pounds fresh sardines

2 large bunches wild fresh fennel greens (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 large onion, grated or minced fine

1/2 cup olive oil and 1 teaspoon of olive oil

1/2 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup dried currants, plumped in hot water for 5 minutes

1/2 cup toasted almond slivers

8 anchovy filets

2 pinches of saffron, soaked in 2 tablespoons of warm water

1 1/2 pounds bucatini or maccheroni

2 cups toasted breadcrumbs


Clean the sardines, removing the tails as well. Trim the fennel greens, removing any tough or dried parts. Wash, then cook them for 10 minutes in abundant salted water. Lift out with a slotted spoon, reserving the water, drain the fennel, and then chop. Over a double boiler, steam the anchovies in 1 teaspoon of the olive oil; the idea is to get the anchovies to dissolve into creamy texture. Saute the onion in 1/4 cup of the olive oil, until it begins to color. Add the pine nuts, currants, almonds, and dissolved anchovies, and the saffron and water. Stir and simmer for a few minutes. Reserve 4 sardines, and fry the remaining sardines in 1/4 cup of olive oil until they are golden, turning them carefully as not to bread them. Remove from the pan, and in the same oil saute the chopped fennel with the 4 reserved sardines, mashing the fish with a wooden spoon as you stir. Bring to a boil the water in which you cooked the fennel and add the bucatini. Cook until al dente. Drain and toss together with half of the onion mixture and half of the fennel mixture. Arrange the pasta in an ovenproof dish, alternating a layer of pasta with a layer of fennel and a layer of the fried sardines, until all of the ingredients have been used up. Sprinkle with some of the breadcrumbs and place in a hot oven, or simply let stand, for 5 minutes before serving. Pass the rest of the breadcrumbs on the side, to sprinkle over the mixture like cheese. Serves 6.




Bread held a special place in the hearts of the Muslims and the Greeks. For the Greeks, Sicily was the island of Demeter, and in Roman times the island was known as the granary of Rome. Food historian Clifford Wright notes by the time the Muslims arrived on the island, Greek bakers had come up with 72 different types of bread. Muslims swore oaths on bread and salt, and according to Mr. Wright, even as late as 1350, there is a record of two Muslims merchants in the Palermo marketplace swearing an contract on bread and salt.


What kind of bread was eaten by the Muslims? This is unknown. The island predominantly grows semolina, or durum wheat, although in winter a soft wheat is grown. Today, the Arab legacy in breads is shown with bread flavored with sesame seed or cumin seed. And bread is not cut, but torn by the hands, just as the Cairo Geniza documents specify that it should be, according to Mr. Wright.


The bread recipe I am including is for the ubiquitous pane riminciato from Mary Taylor Simeti's book, which is made from durum wheat. Breadmaking traditions vary from town to town in Sicily; Ms. Simeti says one old woman told her that in her childhood in her tiny mountain village, they kneaded elderflowers into the dough.


I have made this recipe with fantastic results, although I have not tried reserving a criscenti to use to rise the next batch.


Pane riminciato



7 1/2 cups of durum wheat flour (this is semolina flour ground to a silky finish, if you cannot find durum wheat flour, use 4 cups semolina to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, or go ahead and use the semolina, but be sure to pound the hell out of it when you knead it)

2 tablespoons of yeast (use two packets of dried yeast)

2 1/2 cups warm water

1/4 cup of olive oil

salt (a nice sea salt is very Sicilian, salt is produced on the flats of Trapani)


Put the flour into a bowl and make a well in the middle of it. Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of the water and wait for 15 minutes until it is foamy; then pour the yeast solution into the well of the flour, mixing it with your fingers, and rubbing the flour between your hands so that the yeast is well-distributed. Add the rest of the warm water a little at a time, mixing constantly with your fingers. When you have a dough that holds together, turn out onto a floured board or table. Add your olive oil and salt in at this time, and knead for 5-10 minutes and until the oil is absorbed, punching the dough to release the gluten Form the dough into a ball and put into an oiled bowl, and let rise for 45 minutes. When the dough is risen, remove from the bowl and if you wish to make criscenti for the next baking, do it now. Take some of the dough and make little balls, like golf balls, oil the surface of each ball well, and put into an airtight jar in the refrigerator, where they should keep for about a week. Each ball of dough, when combined with 3/4 cup of flour and a little water and left to rise overnight, should provide the yeast for two pounds of flour. If you don't want to put aside criscenti, separate your dough into about three loaves and let rise for another 45 minutes. Put the loaves into a 425 degree Fahrenheit oven. You can sprinkle the dough with uncooked sesame seeds before baking.




According to the medieval Arabic food expert Charles Perry, a modern-day recipe, scapece alla Vastese, is virtually identical to samak musakbaj (fish made a la sikbaj) in his translation of the al-Baghdadi cook book. Both are flavored with celery leaf, coriander, and saffron. The scapece alla Vastese is not Sicilian, but from Abruzzo, from a town called Vasto on the Adriatic Sea. During the colder winter months, Abbruzzese shepherds moved their sheep to Apulia, a migration called the transumanza. Apulia is where Frederick's Muslims were exiled; when the colony was destroyed in 1300, Abbruzzo is where some of the Lucerian Muslim slaves were sent, according to  Julie Taylor in her Muslims in Medieval Italy: The Colony at Lucera.


In Sicily, there is the famous swordfish "schibbeci" (seviche), made with lemon juice, garlic, oregano, parsley, mint, and hot pepper flakes.


Scapece alla Vastese


2 1/2 lbs. thick white fish steaks.


olive oil for deep frying


generous pinch of saffron

2 or 3 coriander seeds, crushed

1/2 a cup chopped celery leaf

5 cups of white wine vinegar


Lightly coat the fish steaks with flour, and fry until golden. Drain on paper towel and sprinkle with salt. Dissolve the saffron in a little bit of the vinegar, then add it to the rest of the vinegar, along with the coriander and celery leaf. Place vinegar in a pan, and bring to just boil, then remove from flame, cover the bottom of an earthenware dish with a layer of fish steaks, and sprinkle with some of the vinegar. Add the remaining fish, and pour over the rest of the vinegar. cover the dish, and place in a cool spot for 24 hours. When ready to eat drain all vinegar from dish.


What are things you can do with bread? In A Baghdad Cookery Book, there is a recipe for bazmaward: a semolina breadloaf hollowed out and stuffed with cooked minced meat pulverized with salted lemons and walnuts, and the mixture moistened with vinegar and rosewater. The loaf is sliced, the slices packed into a moistened earthernware tub lined with mint leaves, and served cold, and is one of those foods that tastes even better the next day.


In Pomp and Sustenance, Ms. Tayor-Simeti redacts a Catanian recipe called pasticcio di Ibn Ath-Itmnah, named after the emir of Catania who colluded with Robert and Roger d'Hauteville. It was allegedly one of his favorite dishes, invented for his pleasure. Ms. Taylor-Simeti's version contains minced braised chicken, mixed with pulverized pistachios and almonds, parsley, capers, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs moistened with chicken broth and lots of lemon juice. Chicken is not often found on modern-day Sicilian menus, being seen as a special occasion dish. The ingredients are fiercely local: the lands around Catania, in the vicinity of Mount Etna, are filled with almond, pistachio, and lemon trees.


Ibn Ath-Itmnah lived two centuries before the scribe of the al-Baghdadi cookery book put pen to paper. Whether bazmawards are a Persian twist on a Sicilian specialty, or the pasticcio is a modern-day descendent of bazmaward, we will never know. But the pasticcio is Sicilian in a way that bazmaward is not, and I would prefer to see it at a  period Sicilian feast, even if the period antecedents of the dish cannot be perfectly attested to.


Pasticcio di Ibn Ath-Itmnah

(from Mary Taylor Simeti's Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food)


Serves 8 to 10

One large round loaf of semolina bread, hollowed out

One 4-pound chicken in parts

One-quarter olive oil

2 cups (approximately) chicken broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large round loaf of crusty Italian bread

1/8 cup toasted almonds

1/8 cup pistachios

1 tablespoon capers

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Juice of 1 lemon


Brown the chicken in the oil, add 1 cup broth, salt , and pepper, and simmer until tender, adding more broth if needed. (Note: to the medieval cook, this seems to be positively underspiced. Suggested additional spices: cumin, cinnamon, sumac, and coriander.) Cool the chicken, remove the skin and bones, and cut the meat into small pieces. Reserve both the meat and the broth.


Cut the bread horizontally, a little less than halfway down, so as to make a dish and lid. Hollow out the bread, combine the crumbs with the reserved broth, and press through a sieve.


Grind the almonds and pistachios, together with the capers and parsley. Add to the bread puree together with the eggs and lemon juice. The mixture should be quite moist, so you may need to add an extra tablespoon or two of broth. Combine with the chicken meat, spoon into the bread crust, and replace the upper crust.


Bake 20 minutes in a 350 degree F oven. Serve cold.




The next recipe comes from Cariadoc's Miscellany, for isfunj, a type of fried round doughnut with a nut/honey and nut filling and served drenched with honey. Today's Sicilians make sfinci (pronounced "sfinge" by my grandmother's family). The period recipe from Cariadoc is from the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook, translated by Charles Perry. The modern sfinci recipe follows after the period one. Today's sfinci are made with white flour and baking powder, or with white flour and lard, instead of durum flour, oil, and a period leavening agent, and sometimes are stuffed with raisins or a nut/honey paste, but most often are plain balls of fried dough dipped in honey. If you want to make a more period version of sfinci, use the basic pane riminciato recipe, add the 5 eggs and oil in as you add in the yeast.


Making Stuffed Isfunj


Take semolina and sift it, and take the flour and put it in a dish. Take water and sprinkle it lightly on the semolina. Then put your hand in it and gather it all up and cover it with a second dish, leaving it until it sweats. Then uncover it and mix it until it becomes like white flour [that is, the durum ground wheat should resemble soft wheat flour]. Throw oil in it, and mix it, and put in leavening and eggs, throw in a measure of five eggs and then mix the dough with the eggs. Then put it in a new pot, after greasing it with oil, and leave it until it rises. Then take almonds, walnuts, pine nuts and pistachios, all peeled, and pound in a mortar until as fine as salt. Then take pure honey and put it on the fire and boil it until it is on the point of thickening. Then take the almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pine-nuts that you have pounded, and throw all this upon the honey and stir it until it is thickened. Then take the semolina dough that was put in the pot, and make a thin, small flat cake (raghî f) of it, and put on it a morsel of this thickened paste. Then take the raghî f with your hand and turn it until it is smooth and round and bite-sized. [This sentence is in Huici-Miranda's Spanish translation but not in the published Arabic text] Make all the dough according to this recipe, until the filling is used up. The dough should be only moderately thin. Then take a frying pan and put oil in it, and when it starts to boil, throw in a piece of isfunj and fry it with a gentle fire until it is done. And if you wish to thicken with sugar, do so, and if you with to throw almonds, ground sugar, and rosewater into the filling, do so and it will come out aromatic and agreeable.


Sfinci Ammilati

(recipe from Pomp and Sustenance)



1 cup water

1/4 cup lard

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups unbleached flour

5 eggs

Vegetable oil for frying

1/2 cup of honey


Bring the water, lard, and salt to boil in a saucepan. While the pan is still on the heat, sift the flour into the water, stirring as you go. Stir until well-blended, remove from the heat, and allow to cool. When cooled, add the eggs one at a time, and beat at length until the mixture is smooth and lumpless. Heat the oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and drop the batter, one tablespoon at a time, and fry slowly until the sfinci are puffed and a deep golden brown color. Drain on absorbent paper. Heat the honey in a sauce pan and either arrange the sfinci on a platter and pour the heated honey over them, or dip the sfinci into the honey one at time. Serve immediately.




The Arabic geographer al-Idrisi, who wrote the compendium text "The Book of Roger" in honor of King Roger II, made several comments about food production in this volume, according to the food historian and author Cliffford Wright. Besides the production of itriya, al-Idrisi mentions a sweet with honey and sesame seeds called qubbayta. The Bagdhad Cookery Book has several sweets recipes made with sugar, sesame oil, honey, almonds, and pistachios, although none are called qubbayta. Modern Sicilians have cubbaita (sometimes even called by the original name), and this recipe might be very close to the original dish cited by al-Idrisi.




Ingredients for 8 people:

400 grams of sesame seeds

250 grams of honey (orange blossom or acacia honey if you can get it)

2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, spread on a marble slab


Melt the honey in a pan and let it brown, but not burn; keep stirring! Add the sesame seeds slowly and keep on stirring until the honey-sesame seed mixture becomes thick. Pour the mixture on the oiled marble slab, leveling with the blade of a big knife. Let chill for a short while, then draw some lines into the hardening paste with the knife and deeply engrave it in squares. When the paste is fully cold and hardened, you can separate the squares.




Final notes


I’d like to thank Charles Perry, Clifford A. Wright, Duke Sir Cariadoc (David Friedman), and the SCA Cooks list for guidance on the recipes. Mr. Perry and Mr. Wright were very helpful in answering e-mailed questions. I would also like to thank Sayyidah Maymunah bint D’aoud al-Siquillyah (Duchess Magdalena de Hazebrouck) of Atlantia for her suggestions and guidance in finding resources on the history of Muslim and Norman Sicily.






Cariadoc's Miscellany, David Friedman, 1988, 1990, 1992


Medieval Islamic Symbolism and the Paintings in the Cefalu Cathedral, Mirjam Gelfer-Jorgenson, Brill Academic Publishing, 1997


Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Norman Diwan, Jeremy Johns, Cambridge University Press, 2002


The Normans in Sicily, John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books, 1970


A Baghdad Cookery Book, Charles Perry, Prospect Books, 2005


I musulmani in Italia, Vito Salierno, Capone Editore, 2006


Pomp and Sustenance: 25 Centuries of Sicilian Food, Mary Taylor Simeti, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989


Muslims in Medieval Italy: The Colonu of Lucera, Julie Taylor, Lexington Books, 2003


The Cultures of His Kingdom: Roger II and the Capella Palatina in Palermo, William Tronzo, Princeton University Press, 1997


Le Pitture Musulmane al soffitto della Capella Palatina in Palermo, Ugo Monneret de Villard, Roma, La Libreria dello Stato, 1950


A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean, from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs, Clifford A. Wright, William A. Morrow Cookbooks, 1999




From Islam to Christianity: The Case of Sicily, Charles Dalli, University of Malta


Ibn Hawqal in Sicily, William Granara, from Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 3, The Self and the Other/ al-Dhat wa al-Akhar: Muwajahah; Spring 1983, pp. 94-99


Sicily, Salah Zaimeche, Ph.D., The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, November 2004


Online resources:


Best of Sicily, http://www.bestofsicily.com (I can't recommend this site enough; the magazine and online publication are published in Sicily with good writers for the articles on Sicilian history, which are a great starting point.)


Clifford A. Wright's Website, http://www.cliffordawright.com. The essays cited from were Breads in Sicily and The Medieval Beginnings of Sicilian Cuisine. Mr Wright was also very gracious in answering my e-mailed questions.


Copyright 2008 by Christiane Truelove, 657 New Buckley Street, Bristol, PA 19007. <christianetrue at earthlink.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.


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